Ukraine’s combat losses strike a chord with US Army veterans

Although hardened by the fighting he had seen in the war between Ukraine and Russian-backed separatists, Nikonov also had a softer side. He was a family man, Hudson said, recounting how his friend brought dolls from Ukraine as gifts to Hudson’s daughters and took it upon himself to watch them while Hudson was overseas. “Like any Marine you would trust, he said in an interview.

Nikonov was killed last week fighting Russian forces around Mariupol, a city in southeastern Ukraine that has seen devastating violence. In a Facebook post honoring his friend, Hudson called him “a true warrior and hero.”

U.S. forces train with foreign military, trade skills and experience, so their personnel can work better together in operational settings or in times of crisis. But it has another equally basic effect: It sparks relationships in unlikely places, like the shores of the Black Sea, where a U.S. Marine who grew up in Northern California and a lanky officer from Odessa would become friends. durable.

Nikonov, a lieutenant colonel in an elite Ukrainian naval unit similar to US Navy SEALs, was offered numerous opportunities to serve away from the front lines “but passionately declined,” Hudson wrote online. .

“As a leader, Nick led from the front and cared deeply about his teammates,” he added.

With Mariupol under heavy bombardment, Hudson organizes a fundraiser to buy medical supplies for his friend’s unit. Nikonov said while he appreciated the support, it would be difficult for anything to get inside the city. He and his troops were surrounded, Hudson said.

“It’s a huge, huge loss,” Hudson said. “He’s the kind of guy I want to be led by.”

A Ukrainian soldier named Artyom told Reuters he was seriously injured when his military vehicle was hit by Russian shelling. (Reuters)

The war, which began three weeks ago, has claimed thousands of military and civilian casualties, but it has been difficult to get a full and accurate picture of the true human toll on either side, as both work diligently to protect the disclosure of information that could prove advantageous to another.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said on Saturday that 1,300 servicemen were killed, but The Washington Post was unable to verify a number. Independent analysts, however, said the number was potentially higher, noting that the two countries could mask the true cost.

“Military casualties are inherently difficult to track, especially in a conflict like this where the information front is so important,” said Margarita Konaev, associate director of analysis at the Center for Security and Technology. emerging from Georgetown University. “There is an incentive to overestimate and overestimate certain things,” like enemy troops being killed, and to underestimate and underestimate other things, like their own losses, she said.

A Ukrainian Defense Ministry spokesman confirmed Nikonov’s death but raised further questions about the incident with the armed forces, which did not return a request for comment.

The number of Russian casualties has been similarly murky, with US intelligence estimates putting the number last week at between 2,000 and 4,000 dead, but noting there was “low confidence” in those numbers.

Pentagon estimates of the total number of Russian troops withdrawn from combat show many more wounded, captured or missing, saying on Tuesday that Ukraine and Russia have each lost about 10% of their combat power. The Russians sent over 150,000 troops across the border. Ukraine’s active-duty army is estimated to number around 200,000.

Hudson, who served in elite Marine Corps reconnaissance units before retiring from the service in 2018, met Nikonov more than a decade ago and said he stood out for his unusual talent, with equal parts skill and deep affection for the troops he led.

“I noticed those attributes with Nick in the first 30 seconds,” Hudson said. “There is a deep bond that formed from the start.”

While Hudson and his fellow Marines were deployed in Ukraine, Nikonov showed them how to explore culture, he said, including in his hometown of Odessa, the country’s beating artistic heart. Nikonov helped them secure tickets for a performance of “Swan Lake” at the famous opera and ballet house, now fortified with sandbags.

Their military ties grew more complex after Russia annexed Crimea in 2014 and Kremlin-backed separatists seized territory in the Donbass region. Nikonov and his unit fought along the eastern front, Hudson said, recalling a story from his friend about an attack the Ukrainians had carried out on an enemy convoy that resulted in a large recovery of ammunition and other supplies. .

Nikonov dug through the flaming wreckage and pulled out a Separatist uniform for Hudson as a memento from the battlefield. It had burn marks, Hudson said, and he wore it in his spare time on a later tour of Afghanistan, cherishing the gift of one newly minted veteran to another.

His death has shaken close friends, Americans and Ukrainians, who took to Nikonov’s Facebook page to offer their condolences. Many include images of him in one of his favorite places: in the air above the southern coast of Ukraine. In an undated video, Nikonov explains that he is parachuting over the Kinburn Peninsula, where the Dnieper and the Black Sea converge. “I love you and I can’t wait to see you,” he said.

Hudson has yet to contact Nikonov’s immediate family, including his wife and two children, but said he intends to help them if needed. Donations to the Marine Reconnaissance Foundation continue to pour in to help Nikonov’s unit obtain medical supplies. The nonprofit helps American military veterans and their families, but Nikonov, after going through the grueling Marine Corps reconnaissance training course alongside his American counterparts, made those accolades irrelevant, Hudson said. .

“We consider him one of us,” he said.

Serhiy Morgunov in Lviv, Ukraine, and Dan Lamothe in Washington contributed to this report.

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